The elephant in the room: Israel’s nuclear weapons

28 June 2009

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At a White House press conference on 18 May 2009, US President Barack Obama expressed “deepening concern” about “the potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon by Iran.” He continued:

“Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, but would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community as a whole and could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

By his side was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the room with them, there was an elephant, a large and formidably destructive elephant, which they and the assembled press pretended not to see.

I am, of course, referring to Israel’s actual nuclear weapons systems, with which Netanyahu is capable of doing to numerous cities in the Middle East, including Tehran, what the US did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Iran, by contrast, has no nuclear weapons. The US President said so himself in Prague on 5 April 2009 in his major speech on nuclear disarmament. “Iran has yet to build a nuclear weapon,” he admitted.

Obama’s remark that “Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon” would be “profoundly destabilizing” and “could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East” is profoundly dishonest. In reality, the race started in the early 1950s when Israel launched its nuclear weapons program.

Let us suppose for a moment that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, capable of producing effective nuclear warheads and the means of delivering them to Israel, within a few years. Would that make Iran a serious threat to Israel, as Obama said? Of course not.

Rulers of Iran don’t want their cities devastated and they know that if Iran were to make a nuclear strike on Israel, it is absolutely certain that Israel would retaliate by making multiple nuclear strikes on Iran and raze many Iranian cities to the ground — so Iran won’t do it. Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal, and the ruthlessness to use it, that is more than adequate to deter Iran from making a nuclear strike on the country.

Likewise, it is unimaginable that Iran would attack the US, or US interests abroad, for fear of overwhelming retaliation.

However, taking account of the elephant in the room puts a very different perspective on the impact of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The significance of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is not that Iran would become a threat to Israel and the US, but that Israel and the US would no longer contemplate attacking Iran. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons of self-defense — a state that possesses nuclear weapons doesn’t get attacked by other states.

One thing is certain: attacking Iran, ostensibly to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, would make the case for it acquiring them like nothing else. It would then be abundantly clear that Iran could not protect itself by other means — and it can be guaranteed that it would then make a supreme effort to acquire them.

Has Iran got a nuclear weapons program, in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Iran has repeatedly denied that it has such a program. Furthermore, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa on September 2004 that “the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons” (“Iran’s Statement at IAEA Emergency Meeting,” Mehr News Agency, 10 August 2005) . In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of his predecessor and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini.

That’s what Iran says. As required by the NPT, Iran’s nuclear facilities are subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And, despite many years of inspection and investigation, the IAEA has found no evidence that Iran has, or ever had, a nuclear weapons program, though Western media consistently give the opposite impression. True, the possibility exists that Iran has nuclear facilities for military purposes, which it hasn’t declared to the IAEA. The IAEA has found no evidence for this, but the possibility cannot be completely ruled out.

Iran’s possession of uranium enrichment facilities is not in breach of the NPT, so long as they are for civil nuclear purposes. The operation of these facilities at Natanz is subject to rigorous IAEA scrutiny. The IAEA has testified that only low enriched uranium suitable for a power generation reactor is being produced there and that none of it is being diverted from the plant for other purposes, for example, to further enrich uranium to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. That being so, the ongoing demands that Iran suspend these enrichment facilities is a denial of its “inalienable right” under Article IV(1) of the NPT to engage in nuclear activities for peaceful purposes.

What is the current US intelligence assessment? A US National Intelligence Estimate, the key judgments of which were published in December 2007, concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the autumn of 2003, and hadn’t restarted its program in the interim (see David Morrison, “Iran hasn’t a nuclear weapons programme says US intelligence,” Labour and Trade Union Review, 14 December 2007).

Commenting on this, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, noted on 4 December 2007 that:

“[T]he Estimate tallies with the Agency’s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.”

The present position of the US/EU seems to be that Iran should not have uranium enrichment facilities on its own territory, under any circumstances. As I have said above, this is a denial of Iran’s “inalienable right” under Article IV(1) of the NPT to engage in nuclear activities for peaceful purposes. It is also discriminatory against Iran, since no objection has ever been raised to other states, for example, Brazil and Japan, having enrichment facilities on their own territory in order to manufacture reactor fuel.

Iran entered into negotiations with the UK, France and Germany about its nuclear facilities in October 2003. During these negotiations, Iran voluntarily suspended a range of nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment. The negotiations came to an abrupt halt in August 2005 when the European states made proposals, which required Iran to abandon all processing of domestically mined uranium, including enrichment, and to import all fuel for nuclear power reactors.

Had Iran accepted these proposals, its nuclear power generation would have been dependent on fuel from abroad, which could be cut off at any time, even though Iran has a domestic supply of uranium ore. It was no surprise, therefore, that Iran rejected these proposals out of hand — and later resumed those activities it had suspended, including uranium enrichment.

Since then, the US/EU took Iran to the UN Security Council about its nuclear activities. The council has passed various resolutions demanding, inter alia, that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and imposing (rather mild) economic sanctions on it in an attempt to compel it to do so. Russia and China have gone along with this rather reluctantly, while using their veto power to keep the sanctions mild.

The key question is: are there any circumstances in which the US/EU would be content for Iran to have uranium enrichment facilities on its own territory? For example, could additional measures be put in place to provide assurance that these, and other nuclear facilities, are being used for peaceful purposes only?

In the past, Iran did allow an enhanced form of IAEA inspection, under a so-called Additional Protocol to its basic inspection agreement with the IAEA. This isn’t mandatory on a state under the NPT (and Brazil, which also has uranium enrichment facilities, doesn’t allow it). The Additional Protocol is designed to allow the IAEA to get a full picture of a state’s nuclear activities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, and to visit unannounced — and thereby seek to eliminate the possibility that a state is engaging in nuclear activity for military purposes at sites that it hasn’t declared to the agency.

Iran signed an Additional Protocol in 2003 and allowed the IAEA to operate under it from December 2003 until February 2006. But, it withdrew permission in February 2006 when it was referred to the Security Council. There is little doubt that Iran would be prepared to allow the IAEA to operate under an Additional Protocol again, if the Security Council dogs were called off and the economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council were lifted.

That is one additional measure that could be taken to help provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear facilities are being used for peaceful purposes only. Another measure was suggested by Iran, as long ago as 17 September 2005. Then, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the following extraordinary offer, which goes way beyond the requirements of the NPT:

“… as a further confidence-building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of [a] uranium enrichment program in Iran.”

Needless to say, the US/EU have ignored this proposal, which would have put Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities under a degree of international control. Perhaps, President Obama’s staff should draw this proposal to his attention.

David Morrison is a political officer for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.